WEST SPRINGFIELD — There are wide-eyed kids in strollers. Moms and dads in ballcaps sipping foamy beer from clear plastic cups. Cream puffs go for $6. And the petting zoo is free.
Don McLean was singing about a Chevy at the levee — about those good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye.
And, if you let your mind wander, it’s easy to forget — if fleetingly — that a pandemic’s death toll is now approaching 680,000 in the United States.
But Glen Bouchard needs no reminder about the danger dancing in the air — or about the magic that reassembles here every year in late summer when the Eastern States Exposition, The Big E, comes to life again.
He’s been a fixture here since he was a kid, serving soda and french fries at the Yankee Boy restaurant, carrying on a family tradition that his grandfather began in 1926 when The Big E was a place of canvass tents, hot dog carts, and quirky musical acts that are now the stuff of local lore.
He’s also a full-time practicing emergency room physician, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, who’s worked in the ER now for nearly 30 years, most recently at Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer.
These days he also knows about rattlesnake and rabbit sausage. He can offer you a kangaroo burger and, for $12, he’ll serve you a burger made of bison.
It can get a little confusing when those two worlds collide.
“When you’re a doctor, you’re always a doctor,” he told me the other day as we strolled through The Big E fairgrounds under a cloudless, cobalt-blue sky. “It’s funny because nurses will come in who I know at the hospital, and they’ll come to the window and ask: ‘Is Doctor Bouchard here?’
“And the staff looks at them like, ‘What are you talking about?’ They have no idea. A lot of these folks don’t know I’m a physician. So they’ll go: ‘Doctor Bouchard? You mean Glen. Oh, Glen. Yeah. Yeah. He’s on the fryolator.’”
Glen Bouchard has lived in that split-screen world all his life.
He grew up in West Springfield and graduated from West Springfield High School in 1981. He collected his undergraduate degree from Tufts University and his medical degree from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“That’s my job,” he told me. “This is my side gig, as they say.”
That Big E side gig is hardly a lark. Each day it’s a 20-hour commitment that began when he was just a boy.
“I’d be 10 years old, working behind the counter and serving soda and hot dogs and french fries,” he recalled. “My friends loved it. They’d say, ‘Let’s go down to The Big E. Bouchard’s got free food.’ All my buddies would come down. ‘Here. A hot dog for you.’
“But that was in the days when all we did was hot dogs and hamburgers and stuff like that. Over the years, it’s gotten bigger and bigger with lobsters and barbecue. But, yeah, it was great being a kid down here. I’ll tell you. It got in my blood and it stayed there ever since. You can’t get away from it.”
Or want to.
And, like a family heirloom, he’s passed on this tradition.
His daughter Courtney, an actress who collected her degree in drama from Suffolk University, works the cash register. And so does her brother, Cameron.
“He’s in the finance business, and he was on that grill all this past weekend,” Glen Bouchard told me. “Keeps him humble. It’s what got him there. Exactly. You knew if you were in this family, you were here to work. We’re down at The Big E and you’re working this weekend. You’re not going out with your friends anywhere. You’re working. And they did. They’ve done really well with it.”
He and his wife, Corinne, have been married for 31 years now, presiding over a concession stand with green picnic tables outside and Formica tables with folding chairs inside.
This is his family’s 95th summer at The Big E.
“I don’t want to wish my life away,” he said, “but I would love to get to 100 years here.”
So would Eugene Cassidy, president and chief executive of The Big E. He’s been friends with Glen Bouchard since they were kids together in grammar school.
“He’s so humble,” Cassidy told me the other day. “He was the valedictorian of his medical school class. He’s a brilliant guy like his grandfather was. He loves people. And he’s been taking care of them for years now, whether it’s feeding them on the fairgrounds or in the hospital’s emergency room.”
Cassidy said The Big E’s tradition has endured over the years — through wars, economic calamities, social unrest, and disease — because of people like Bouchard.
“The tradition of the fair is something that’s loved by many people,” Cassidy said. “In today’s day and age there are less and less traditions in our lives that have the type of meaning that the fair does. Glen plays a huge and important role in bringing people together.
“And it doesn’t matter who you are. Nobody knows when they come to Glen’s stand who he is. They don’t realize that he’s a gifted medical care provider who happens to be cooking them a hamburger.”
These days, his stethoscope can wait.
He’s ordering alligator meat from Louisiana. He’s juggling schedules. He’s making the trains run on time at his slice of The Big E.
“It’s a big part of my life,” he said. “Most people come home and what do they talk about at the dinner table? We knew what our conversations would be. When it was getting to be June, July, the conversation around the dinner table was the Big E.
“What were we going to do? What was going to be the food we were going to offer? What was the new building we were going to put up? How are we going to change things to make it work better?”
And his other life is never far away.
“We’ve had little emergencies when people were not feeling well,” he said. “So, all of a sudden, I drop my spatula and I turn into a doctor. And I say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to help this person obviously.’ You always have that dual role as a physician.
“Once a doctor, always a doctor. There have seen so many things over the years. You could really write a book about this stuff. I always call it, ‘Seventeen Days of Survival.’
“That’s going to be my title: ‘Seventeen Days.’”
And those 17 days expire on Sunday.
That’s when Glen Bouchard will say goodbye to his fryolator.
He’ll put down his spatula. And pick up his stethoscope again.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.